Amphion’s lyre: myth and musical iconography

amphion uses his lyre to build the walls of Thebes
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Mario Friscia

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What was the special power of Amphion’s lyre?

What happened when he played this musical instrument to accompany a song?

How has Amphion been depicted by European artists throughout the centuries?

In this article I’m going to answer these three questions by walking you through the musical iconography related to the myth of Amphion.

Let’s dive into it!

Amphion’s lyre: a magical skill to build the walls of Thebes

According to the Greek mythology, Amphion, son of Zeus and Antiope, built the walls of Thebes with the help of his twin brother Zethus.

But the stones were heavy and Zethus struggled a lot to carry them.

Amphion then decided to use a trick, a musical trick: he started singing a song and the stones followed after him, magically transported by the sound of his voice, accompanied by the subtle melody coming from a stringed instrument: the lyre.

The magical powers of Amphion’s enchanting voice were in fact increased by the sound of the lyre.

His performance was so powerful and delightful that the stones surrendered completely to his will and placed themselves spontaneously so as to help the two brothers in the construction process.

Greek traditional literature and other sources remind us that the marvelous skill of charming human beings, animals, gods, and even objects, with musical sounds was a not only a prerogative of Amphion.

A similar “superpower” was attributed by Greeks to Orpheus as well.

If you want to explore in greater detail the myth behind Orpheus’ lyre, I invite to read this article: “Lyra constellation and the myth of Orpheus’ lyre. History of a musical instrument in the sky“.

They thought that music could be used to change one’s emotions and influence the behavior of both living beings and inanimate objects.

I’m referring to the “ethos” doctrine which is perfectly showcased by Amphion’s legend.

As well as his “colleague” Orhpeus, Amphion was in fact highly re-known for the beauty and magical effectiveness of his musical skills.


Iconography of Amphion: lyre, lute and lira da braccio

As per the mythology and literature of ancient Greece, Amphion’s favorite musical instrument was the lyre, a sort of small harp made out of turtle shell and strummed with a plectrum.

Lyre as the accompaniment for singing was believed to be the best solution to support the vocal performance of a poem.

This work by Troschel (1806-1863) gets closer to the traditional iconography and portrays Amphion in company of his lyre.

sculpture of amphion holding a lyre in his right hand
Troschel, “Amphion and Zethus” CC BY-SA 3.0 by Rufus46 via Wikimedia Commons

The painter Vignaud (1775-1826) does the same:

amphion playing the lyre next to mercury
Vignaud, “Amphion and Mercury”, Public Domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

However, some European artists loved to move away from the traditional iconography and started to depict Amphion playing various instruments such as the lira da braccio and the lute.

A French 18th century engraver, Bernard Picart, created “Amphion Builds the Walls of Thebes by the Music of his Lyre” in 1733.

amphion playing his lira da braccio
Picart, “Amphion Builds the Walls of Thebes by the Music of his Lyre”, Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

This work was part of the Temple of the Muses (a portfolio of sixty plates both designed and engraved by the French artist) and takes inspiration from the mythical story of Amphion and his brother Zethus who attacked Thebes to kill Lycus.

Picart describes the moment in which Amphion fortifies the city by moving the stones with his music.

You can see the floating stones approaching the musician.

But if you have taken a carefull look at the image, you may have noticed that Amphion is not playing the ancient Greek lyre but a stringed instrument very similar to a violin, called “lira da braccio”.

While the Greek lyre was played with a plectrum, Amphion is depicted here playing his instrument with a bow.

Krauss, a German illustrator of the 17th century, follows Picart’s path and takes the liberty to associate Amphion with another instrument, completely different from the lira da braccio and the lyre.

amphion playing his lute
Krauss, “Amphion”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As you can see from the picture above, here the stones are moved by the sound of a lute.

Why is that?

Why did these artists change Amphion’s traditional instrument, opting for a lira da braccio or a lute instead of the original lyre?

Let me give you one possible answer:

to modernize the myth of Amphion by including a musical instrument that could have been more easily recognized by the people of the 17th and 18th century.

In addition to that, singing a song accompanied by a lute or a lira da braccio was believed to be the best way to sustain the beauty of human voice and enhance the poetry of the verses at that time.

So, it comes as no surprise that Amphion’s lyre was sometimes replaced by these two instruments.

The goal of Picart and Krauss was not to present the myth of Amphion with philological or musicological rigor but to align it with the customs and musical tastes of their own historical periods.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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